Friday, April 3, 2009

Scaling Up

Activists, reformers, legislators, and education leaders all seem to believe that innovation in education is particularly desirable if it can be "scaled-up." By this they mean two things: that innovations that start small must get bigger, and that innovations that start in one place must be transferable to other sites.

I understand their desires. After all, there would be nothing more efficient than finding a reform that could be used anywhere to make learning more powerful. I'm skeptical, though, about whether scaling-up is usually possible. Being a historian, a localist, and a believer in communities organizing to solve their own problems (or provide their own satisfaction) I'm not sure that scaling up works or is even desirable. But being an administrator, I understand the imperative to scale up so that a whole institution works.

The latest reason for my uncertaintly about scaling up is this article that ran recently in Slate. It outlines the successes of KIPP--The Knowledge is Power Program that has spread to a couple of dozen schools in several cities.

KIPP sets up charter schools that follow an intense model--longer school days, saturday school, highly focused teaching and learning, rewards for success, penalties for failure--to make real headway among students who have struggled elsewhere. The author, Sarah Mosle, wonders why KIPP hasn't flourished everywhere, or why it hasn't tried to re-make an entire school district.

She suggests that part of the reason is that KIPP relies on a particular type of highly motivated parent, and a particular type of highly motivated teacher, to succeed. For this reason, it is unlikely that something like KIPP could scale-up (even though the folks at KIPP believe they can).

Commenting on the article, Bryce Bunting wrote the following:

It doesn’t seem surprising that when the commitment level of all of the stakeholders is high, we see good results. That makes me think that in our efforts to find ways to improve education we shouldn’t just be thinking about structure, but about how to increase buy-in for the inherent value of education. Really bad models can have moderate success with a group of committed people. Likewise, disinterested participants can make even the best model or system look bad. The question for me is what people who care about learning can do to bring about changes in the way people think about and view education. What are the tipping points?

Bryce is right, I think, about the power of commitment. I remember reading a study in which students said the most powerful influence on their learning was the enthusiasm of their teachers.
This article on the Hawthorne Effect suggests the same thing--people (including students) respond positively to attention from others.

What does this mean for scaling up? It leaves me with a bunch of questions:
  • Is passion for a program (or a pedagogy, or any other ed innovation) as important as the program itself?
  • If success is so dependent on passion, shouldn't we be working on passion rather than programs?
  • What are the right areas of passion? Is it possible to build passion about topics/approaches that are also likely to be successful?
  • If your job is to change an institution to educate better, but scaling up blunts the impact of innovation, what do you do?
  • Are lots of small innovations, if they fit their contexts, better than a few big ones?

Personally, I'd like to see more schools (esp. colleges and universities) modeled on community organizing. Gather people who are passionate about something. Have them focus on a problem. Have them build a response. Respond, tracking the success of the response for the problem and for the learners. Start again. (Whatever this all means...) The process, not the program, scales up.

Open Learning Blog and Legislation

Bryce Bunting, observant as always, sent me this link to a great blog on open content and learning:

Also from Bryce, this link to proposed legislation requiring federal bureaucracies to develop open learning resources for the STEM disciplines.